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Someone standing in the beautiful new Dana-Farber Community Cancer Care Clinic at Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury can look out the tall fifth-floor windows and see almost all the way up Longwood Avenue to Dana-Farber's main campus.
It's just a mile from one facility to the other, and staff members at both are committed to helping Boston residents feel comfortable making the trip.
After more than a decade of partnering with Whittier on early detection and cancer survivorship efforts, Dana-Farber opened a cancer clinic at the health center's brand-new Tremont Street building in January. Featuring six exam rooms, large consult and meeting areas, and a patient resource room, it's believed to be the country's first dedicated oncology space in an inner-city health center.
Every two weeks, one member of a rotating group of fiveDana-Farber oncologists spends a day in the Whittier clinic, meeting with patients for screenings, consults, and educational sessions. The new clinic will address a sobering statistic: rates of cancer incidence and mortality are much higher for people of color.
Hailing from 20 different countries, and predominantly made up of people of color, 60 percent of Whittier's patient population lives below the poverty line.
The clinic's goal, says Christopher Lathan, MD, Dana-Farber's faculty director for Cancer Care Equity, is to "close the gap" so that cancer patients at Whittier can make a smooth transition to treatment at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center.
"In the past, when Whittier patients were referred to Dana-Farber, they often didn't show up for appointments," says Lathan, a thoracic cancer specialist at Dana- Farber, who is the new clinic's director and one of its rotating oncologists.
"Dana-Farber has been seeking to change this by reaching out to the community with educational sessions, free screenings, and other initiatives."
Dana-Farber signs posted in Whittier's new facility are a visible example of the Institute's efforts to bring cancer care and education to Roxbury and other inner-city communities. The health center, which has been in the same neighborhood since 1933, is a trusted resource, seeing 19,000 patients a year for primary care and other needs. Its nearly 50/50 female/male patient ratio is unique for urban health centers, which traditionally have a hard time drawing male residents.
"We are not only focusing on coordinated care in this building, through our comprehensive program, but also on our external referrals," says Whittier President and CEO Frederica Williams, who is also a Dana-Farber trustee.
"Here, patients can see Dana-Farber's commitment to addressing health care disparities. Early detection is a priority, along with getting people connected and helping them navigate the system. We want to build a community around them. Nobody should have to face cancer alone."
The close interaction between Dana-Farber's cancer specialists and Whittier internists is another key benefit.
"Whenever you can bring that type of expertise into a neighborhood health center, it's a big plus," says Whittier Associate Medical Director Mark Drews, MD. "We can learn from each other and guide patients through the system more easily."
A case in point came one recent Friday morning, when a patient diagnosed with prostate cancer at the Roxbury facility came to the Longwood Avenue campus for his first Dana-Farber appointment. Lathan met him in the waiting room, and noted later, "I could sense the man really trusted me — and that's because we first met at Whittier."